The benefit of the doubt
Acts 5:27-42 (NRSV)
27 When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. 30 The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”
33 When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them.34 But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. 35 Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. 36 For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. 37 After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. 38 So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail;39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”
They were convinced by him, 40 and when they had called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. 41 As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. 42 And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.
The Benefit of the Doubt
Peter said to the judges “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”
That kind of statement has gotten a lot of people in trouble.
First of all, how does one know the difference between what is coming from God and what is coming from humans? Certainly for every local manifestation of every faith, we might find a slightly different answer.
It’s even a live question in the religion known as American sports. During a recent NCAA basketball game, a 3-point shot bounced around on top of, in and out of the hoop for what seemed like minutes before it finally dropped through, and the announcer said, “well somebody’s praying for that team in the stands tonight.”
Perhaps God is an invisible player offering shot “assists” and blocks depending on which team is getting the most prayer. But I think not.
Peter, though, seemed pretty confident that he knew what God had done and was asking for, and he was willing to die for it.
Today is the day before the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, so it’s an apt time to hear this story about some of the disciples of Jesus who seemed to not fear death. Or even suffering.
Sometimes we’ll hear people say, “I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to suffer.” That seems human.
That may explain why Peter and the disciples in the book of Acts seem almost superhuman. I have hard time relating to Peter, even though it seems like he’s been designed for us to relate to…he’s that bumbling disciple of Jesus who Jesus taps to continue to the story; to become the church. But lines like that last little bit of the story there always make me uncomfortable:
“As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.”
Really? Does anybody really rejoice that they are suffering, even if it’s for the best cause possible?
On this post-Easter Sunday, when we’re going to be having the Lord’s Supper, it would make sense to study one of the texts about the resurrection appearances involving food, like the road to Emmaus, or Jesus cooking the fish on the beach in the morning. Where we taste the food and look around us to see Christ is with us in the breaking of the bread.
But instead we have a text which carries forward the same political and religious tension of the previous two weeks’ stories, really, paired with a gospel text where the disciples are locked in a room and afraid. One would think that the tension of palm Sunday where Jesus enters Jerusalem and turns tables and makes leaders upset, and the tension of all of the events leading to his execution would somehow now be cut through, bursting through the bars of death with the resurrected Jesus.
But we have this story in which the political consequences of Jesus’ actions before his death and resurrection are now the consequences of those who seek to follow him. Everything that was propelling the calling of Jesus in his life is now propelling the calling of what is to become the church. The clueless, bumbling disciples are now convinced and empowered. And the political ire that rested on Jesus, now rests on those who do things in his name.
This story, and many others like it, are part of our founding story, the bedrock of what it meant to be a Christian in first century Rome, and then again what it meant to be an Anabaptist during the Reformation in the 16th century.
And these founding stories, as they are told here in Acts and in places like the Martyrs Mirror, make us really uncomfortable. I think I’ve told you before that my first exposure to the Martyrs Mirror was a professor who read a story from it to start class each day, during which I started having nightmares.
This is one of those areas where being new parent has helped me out a little bit, because now I have at least a little more of a glimpse into the experience of those contradictory concepts of joy and suffering. But it’s not quite the same, because in parenting we’re usually talking about things like sleep deprivation or other generally less violent forms of torture than a flogging or death.
Not that it doesn’t happen to people, but what I’ve come to see is that I haven’t really suffered all that much in life.
I remember that in high school and college when I was playing the trumpet a lot, sometimes I would think that the missing element in my playing the blues was that I’d never really had the blues. Not in the way that the best players had – Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Coltrane. If I wanted to wail and moan I needed to have something to wail and moan about. It’s a strange wish!
So, maybe a lack of suffering is one of the missing pieces for me in relating to Peter. And still wrestle with how much I or we should seek out the things that cause suffering in order to live faithfully.
But the gospel is for all of us, right now, right where we are, and sometimes it comes from surprising places. This story brings someone else into the picture who meets me right where I am now: Gamaliel.
Maybe this isn’t Gamaliel’s first time hearing the gospel from Peter, but suffice it to say it’s not his home territory, or that he comes from a vantage point of skepticism. He, like Thomas, in the story from today’s gospel, carries a healthy level of doubt about what this is all about.
Has may have encountered Jesus in person, like Thomas, and yet both of them are honest about their doubts. Both of them have something to teach us about doubt -- that it can be a benefit. Free expression of doubts also allows them to question their own motives, and their own standing, and invite other “doubters” out of the closet and into a broader possibility of knowing and believing.
Maybe, for those of us who haven’t suffered as much, Gamaliel points to the way to faith. He says, “wait for it. Let it play out.” Take the long view.
That’s what MLK did…the one who said, “the arc of the universe is long and it bends toward justice. It was on this very day, the day before his death, that MLK said,
“Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about a thing. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Whether you are under trial and suffering for what you say or believe, like Peter, or whether you are experiencing the trial of doubt, like Thomas or Peter, may you find that Christ meets you there, walks with you, and leads us all toward the daylight of hope and the promised resurrection.